PEABODY — A week after Republican Scott Brown's stunning Senate victory, Congressman John Tierney said Democrats allowed intense focus on health care reform to overshadow the rest of their agenda.
"If you get so consumed with health care, (voters) think you're not paying attention to jobs," Tierney said. "In fact, we have been."
Tierney also said that Democrats let the health care debate get distorted by those seeking to confuse and scare people.
"By the time the president got to the megaphone," Tierney said, "other people had stepped in." It is why the myth of "death panels" convinced some that their grandmother would die if the changes were enacted, he said.
The Salem Democrat spoke yesterday to local mayors and town managers at a breakfast meeting organized by the Essex National Heritage Commission. He did not criticize Attorney General Martha Coakley's failed campaign but challenged his party, beginning with President Obama, to communicate better with voters. He also said that he would not support a health care bill resembling what passed in the Senate.
"The president has got to get back into the business of explaining to people why," Tierney said in a interview after the meeting in the Peabody Marriott. "You can't assume that just because you had a good campaign and people really connected with you that now they're just going to implicitly trust you."
Obama, Tierney said, has to be the loudest voice on a range of issues.
"People need to know exactly what's going on," he said. "It needs to be explained clearly enough so that they understand that it's happening for their benefit."
Brown's election has imperiled health care reform because it eliminated Democrats' filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the Senate.
"I don't know how it's going to work out," Tierney, a reform supporter, said of health care.
Taking a piece-by-piece approach would not be easy because the proposed changes are interconnected. If, for example, Congress were to prevent insurance companies from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, insurers would just raise premiums if price controls weren't included in whatever bill that passes, he said.
In Massachusetts, polls showed that voters were frustrated at the "process" that generated the health care legislation. They were angered by a provision in the Senate bill that required the federal government to permanently pay the entire cost of Medicaid expansion in Nebraska, while other states' costs would be covered for three years.
"It was not good at all," Tierney said of the Senate bill. "They made too many concessions and compromises. ... Certainly, I wasn't going to vote for the Senate bill."
He called the Senate's 60-vote filibuster rule "loony" and said it has prevented that body from taking up 249 bills that have passed the House.
"Apparently, we're no longer a majority country, but we're a super-majority country for no particular good reason," Tierney said. "If we want to look like California where they can't get out of their own way because they have rule-by-petition and now they can't pass a budget and they're going under water, then just look at the Senate and what they're doing with the 60-vote rule."
Bill Hudak, a Republican from Boxford, has launched an energetic challenge of Tierney. His campaign, however, was doing damage control last week after it announced Brown had endorsed him. Hudak on Friday apologized to Brown and retracted a press release touting the endorsement because it included comments that were not made or approved by the senator-elect or his campaign.
"I'll let them sort that out for now," Tierney said yesterday.
Policy decisions made during the Bush administration put the country trillions of dollars in debt, Tierney said, and he will remind voters of that on the campaign trail. He will also highlight the work, like the Green Jobs Act, that lawmakers are doing to create jobs.
"We should have been talking about it at the same time we were dealing with health care," he said.